You made it to the end of the How-to series! Today’s topic is how to write a great story. I’m going to cover specific points that are important to flesh out.
Plot: The plot of a story is ultimately the most important… well plot and characters. They ride on the backs of each other. Characters can drive a plot and a plot can create well rounded characters. Now, the plot is your idea, the story line, the GPS, It informs readers about what the story is and what direction it’s going into. Some writers will encourage others to work their way backwards and think of the ending first. Others will say start from the middle. It depends on your thought process, but the way my stories formulate is usually from the characters’ background story. I create a story based on a character’s relationship to another character. In my book “Our Father”, the idea was about a girl who is being stalked by her childhood best and somehow mixed in the mess is her estranged father. I didn’t have a solid plot, just a cool idea. My other story, “Being a Model”, began with an idea about a girl looking for her mother. The plot with her becoming a model was not in my mind initially. Your plot is a road. It needs a beginning, middle, and end. Everything that happens in the story should follow each other to the end. In other words, scenes – as I like to call them- or chapters are stepping stones further into the main plot. It’s not a promising idea to start writing a story without formulating a solid plot and I say this from experience. I get excited and start writing then I end up with plot holes, and things going in the wrong direction. I recently started outlining and it has helped. With an outline, you can write snippets of what need to happen in each chapter. This way, you can have a visual account of your plot, read through it, and see if the story progresses to the end.
Characters: My favorite part about writing! Character development is what keeps readers going. I have read books with a fascinating plot, but not so fascinating characters. It’s a challenging task. You, as the writer, are creating people. Human beings! And they need to be realistic. Writers give them names, birthdays, families, backstories, trials, and triumphs. We create an entire population. A beneficial tool to use is a character interview sheet. There are various versions online. They ask the character’s name, family life, favorite color, food, if they have birthmarks, or what their fear is. These things to help build a well-rounded person. It’s also important to get in tune with your characters, at least the main character. You must delve deep within their mind, feel them as an extension of you.
Writing “Being a Model” is difficult sometimes because I am not in tune with my main character, Mai. It goes in and out. I don’t know who she is sometimes. This can peek through a story. You don’t need to become the characters, you need to understand them . They need to become three-dimensional wait, no- four dimensional. Give them real fears and challenges. Every character included in the story needs to have purpose, an objective. Try not to include random characters. Some characters’ main purpose is to support the main characters and make them more realistic or offer a different view into that person’s life. They could also be that person’s voice of reason. Allow characters to tell the story. Switching from person to person, their voice and experiences should flow out. Ask yourself, “What would this person say in response to that?” “How would they handle grief?” “Does she trust this new person into her life?” This is why writer’s need to be in tune with their characters, so they can answer these questions.
Setting: Okay this may be tricky, but also fun. The setting includes time and place. Is it set in the future, Wisconsin, France, the Medieval period, or the present? I like choosing places I’ve never been to like New York or Madagascar. I use google maps as a tool because they show real streets. You can go down roads and such. Describing the scene sets the tone and provides imagery for the reader. Find locations you want to use in your story and make sure to describe them enough to create a picture. Be careful not to have a sensory overload. If it’s the first time describing a location in the story, you can go into detail. If it’s the second or third time, only focus on changes. For example, describing a character’s home. In the first mention, you may go into detail about the structure, color, window shape, how they organize furniture, or what colors the walls are. But because this will be a frequently used location, there is no need to describe everything again. The vase that was there before is gone. Note that. Maybe the home looks different at night. Note that. Go on google images and find pictures of places that look like what you’re envisioning. Readers will envision their own version, but having some detail helps. If it’s set in another time period, do a lot of research for accurate information. What type of technology did they use? What did the clothing look like? For fantasy stories, setting is important because the writer is formulating an entire world. Drawing a map of your world is beneficial as well.
Major points in plot: I added this part because writing down or highlighting key parts in your plot keeps you focused. These points are things in the story that NEED to happen. I see them as bookmarks. For “Our Father”, I had those major points and all the other scenes were supporting roles to get there. For example, I have a kidnapping scene in “Our Father” which was a major point. For the kidnapping to happen, I had to write other scenes that led up to it and allowed it to happen. A certain character needed to not be at the house, another character had to forgive the main character, things of that nature.
Dialogue: Conversations between characters also drive the plot. It can reveal certain information withheld from readers. This a way for characters to be themselves, you can really hear their voice. Having too much or too little dialogue can divert the reader. Conversations that don’t support the plot are unnecessary. There is an objective in every piece of dialogue. It needs to lead to something, expose someone, uncover information. Two characters having a long discussion about racecars when it has nothing to do with the story is a waste of space. I’ve had to cut pieces of dialogue out because they didn’t offer anything. Here’s an exercise. Try removing a piece of dialogue and see if the story goes well without it. If the story flows, then you know it wasn’t helpful. Sometimes dialogue is there to understand a character more, that’s fine. Making a character more well-rounded still benefits the plot.
Motivation and Inspiration: This may be last, it’s very crucial. You can’t write a great story without the passion to do so. I watched runway videos, photo shoot videos and looked at many fashion photos for “Being a Model”. It inspired me to write Mai’s story and convey the true life of a model. I made a Pinterest board for “16 years ago” for each of my main characters. Prayer and meditation clears your mind and enriches you. Explaining your stories to others gets you excited to keep writing. Find a nice cozy place in your home, at a park, or maybe a coffee shop that will motivate your senses to write. Make a playlist and listen to songs related to your story or unrelated. It does get tough especially when you get writer’s block or feel discouraged about the story. Don’t let discouragement end the journey. Even if you don’t believe in yourself, believe in the story. Believe in the characters and trust the process.
*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
Dividing an essay into manageable chunks makes it a straightforward task. I don’t write papers in one day. In fact, it takes me three days to a week to complete one paper. Why? I write a couple hundred words a day. For the example I am using today, that paper was 3,487 words and some days I wrote 500 words, other days I wrote a thousand. Some people can crank out thousands of words and finish a whole paper in two hours. Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t operate that way. I l enjoy creative writing, but I have a strong dislike for essays. Whether you can crank out those words or not, my method can be a viable alternative to use.
As an example, I will refer to a paper I wrote for my Popular Music of the world class. We had to analyze at least two non-western songs and connect it to the topics we covered in class. I copied the Paper prompt and pasted it into Microsoft Word to create an outline. Here are four key things to successfully plan out your essay for easy writing.
1. Answer specific questions/directions in the prompt. By doing this, you won’t miss adding something important for your topic. I recommend copying and pasting the prompt in Word or Google docs.
2. Find sources to include and organize it under questions/directions from the prompt that correspond with it.
a. The bold parts are what were necessary to include in the paper. I used bullet points underneath each piece of direction for the research aka websites and scholarly journals.
3. Organize everything you have into an outline
4. Proofread! As you finish each section, proofread it before you move on.
Extra tips: Once you have a strong outline, assign each paragraph topic a day. Example
Sunday: Country background for Ghana;
Monday: Country background for Nigeria;
Tuesday: Genre background for Highlife;
Wednesday: Genre background for Afrobeats;
Thursday: Highlife song analysis;
Friday: Afrobeat song analysis and conclusion
Once you've finished, send a draft to a friend or if your school offers tutoring, use that option. Another pair of eyes may detect an issue with the topic or a grammatical error.
Using this method has improved my grades when it comes to essays and I hope it does the same for you!
*Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash.com
Poetry is not about words sounding pretty. It’s not about depression. It’s not about love. Your creativity, experiences, emotions, and your words define poetry. A poem does not only consist of stanzas with four lines each in ABAB format. Poetry exists as a method to express. Poetry speaks the words you cannot say. Illustrates a feeling you cannot draw. Poetry releases those things and creates a story that embodies everything you want it to. I’ll give you some tips on how to do that.
Let’s begin with imagery. Imagine a setting. Smell the air. See the scene. Close your eyes and immerse yourself in it. Allow your senses to deliver words of description. The thing about poetry it’s all about experiencing your words and a lot of patience. For me, I can’t interrupt myself or the flow will stop. Once you feel that, don’t take a break yet. Start by describing what you hear or what’s outside your window.
Next, is using a thesaurus. Have a page open either on a phone or computer. Sometimes our vocabulary is not expansive enough to give us proper words to use. “Walk” may work, but “stroll” is better. I constantly look up synonyms to everyday words. It’s not about it sounding fancy. You as the writer want to convey a message. Specific words relay that message better than others.
Next, is structure. I tend to leave this until the very end. After reading through the whole poem I create line breaks. The way it's broken up can change a poem. If there are many situations going on, breaking it up in the right parts is important. If the top part speaks about mistakes and the bottom is about redemption, finding the right place to separate those two helps a reader. Organization in poetry helps the flow. Poetry has guidelines, but don’t feel confined to them. It can have stanzas, or it could be a paragraph. It can be half a page or several pages.
Now for the poem itself. I like to start with feelings. Am I cold, upset, stuck (metaphorically), etc. With writing about another person, you can begin with their physical description, their personality, how they make you feel, or an action. If your poem is referring to a memory, describe the scene and why that memory has stuck with you for so long. If you have absolutely no idea what to write about, look around the room. Pick a color and a couple random things or do I what I do and write random sentences. Something will spark an interest and your mind will get creative. It’s like bait. A sentence will stand out and an entire poem can come out of it. Here’s an example of mine:
I turned around to find a friend
I turned around to the end
As solid ground flew away
I called out to the sky
Because she never said bye
Cancel the dreams
Undo the seams
She has gone and left me here
Unraveled and unclothed without my friend
Is this truly the end?
I wrote several lines after the first two, but didn’t like the way it sounded. I kept the first two and took off from there. I created a pattern of two lines of rhyme, a break, and two more lines of rhyme. I almost deleted the first draft, but those two lines stuck out to me. It’s not the greatest, but gives you an idea. Poetry comes from within and as with any art, it is difficult to “teach”. Keep sharpening the tool. Never let the mind dull. Everyday brings new inspiration. You need to stay alert and grab at it when the opportunity arises. Keep a notebook with you at all times or download a notebook app. Challenge yourself to writing a poem at the end of the week for a month. Practice, progress, and perfect.
*Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash.com
Have you ever picked up a book, opened it to the first page and read the first line? Yes? Well have you ever put the book back because you didn’t like the first line or paragraph? First impressions whether on paper or in person can be crucial. The most important work history goes on top in a resume to catch a potential employer’s eye. It’s the same with the beginning of a book. Something needs to grab the reader and make them want to continue reading. They say the beginning of a book should give readers an insight on what the story will be about. Yet, it could be a quote, dialogue, or a foreshadowing. The plot is what will entice someone to read your piece of writing. Nonetheless, I’m going to share some of my first lines/paragraphs and comment on why they work. By the end of this, you will have an idea on how to create an enticing beginning for your story.
These lines are from my book “Down to the Chase”. “My body convulses at the sight of the dead man lying in the middle of the alley. Blood pools around his abdomen, as his life slowly trickles out of him. Shallow breathes kill the silent night. The cold knife slips out of my hand and clangs to the ground.” These lines are my favorite openers. I wrote this book during Nanowrimo 2014 and I don’t know what type of creative juices were flowing that day. The whole first page is spectacular in fact. The story starts off with the end of a fight. Main character Deonte, stabbed not just anyone, but his girlfriend’s ex. Yep. I wanted to catch the aura of this scene. I wanted readers to be there, feel Deonte’s desperation and the weight of killing a man.
My novel “Our Father”, begins with a poem and the first lines are, “The man staring back at me is not the same man they remember. I’m renewed. Life has breathed itself back into me. I am new. I am stronger.”
This is a thought by my character Nathaniel, who is stalking his former best friend. These lines express how Nathaniel strives to become better while also distancing himself from the past. When I started this story five years ago it opened with Robyn -his old best friend- waking up at her friend’s house. It was more interesting to begin with Nathaniel and let readers see the mystery beforehand and wonder who this person is. As the chapters goes on, readers will understand Nathaniel is someone “scary”, “cunning”, a dear friend and brother. This beginning's purpose is to introduce a character and his motives.
· Next story is “Being a Model”. The first two lines are, “I breathe in the unique New York scent. A little wet and salty.”
This beginning opens with scenery. My character is coming in from a small town in Texas to the Big Apple, a dream of hers. My idea was to start with her coming in from the airport and get her reaction to New York. My initial idea was to have her already established in NYC, but this beginning made more sense. This is the crucial element in writing a great beginning. Write something that helps the story move along. It paves a way for the rest of the story. The way you start it could change the plot in several ways.
Finally, “The Other Side of the Mirror”. “In Madagascar, we don’t look the same. We are one people. We are the Malagasy people.” I begin with this quote and then a prologue, “We watched as the car rumbled away from our humble home. The home that couldn’t take care of our baby girl.”
The quote is important for the Malagasy culture. It doesn’t explain what it means. The people of Madagascar have great diversity ancestry and culture. Their ancestors come from East Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. As for the prologue, this sets up the rest of the story. It has a background explanation and a foreshadowing. My main character Volana, has Alopecia Areata and is adopted. In this prologue both of those things are expressed with an ending scene of her biological mother’s hair falling out. The beginning of a book is a road map for the rest of the story. Hopefully from reading my first liners it gave you inspiration on how to start your masterpiece.
It's How-to January! Each Saturday this month I'm talking about how to write different things. Next week's topic is about poetry.
*Photo by Matthew Sleeper on Unsplash.com
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